The 2011 earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand offered an opportunity for a new approach to city life. What ended up changing? One writer suggests not much.
The Feb. 22, 2011, earthquake killed 185 people and had an unprecedented impact on the built environment of Christchurch, a city built by white settlers on drained swampland. More than 1,200 buildings inside the central four avenues were destroyed by the quake or by demolition crews in the years after. In the suburbs, a process called liquefaction was just as devastating. As the ground shook, water and sand squeezed up through the soil to the surface, leaving the soil to subside into the space the water had vacated. Houses slumped, and roads folded inward like the icing on a failing chocolate cake. In the hardest-hit eastern suburbs, the government eventually bought out and demolished about 6,500 houses, upending countless families.
One of the champions for this area of the city, which is demographically poorer and browner than the rest of Christchurch, was then-opposition MP Lianne Dalziel. She left Parliament in 2013 to contest the mayoralty, won, and is now in her third term. When I asked her about lessons to come from the rebuild, she immediately mentioned “Share an Idea,” an inclusive project run by the City Council in the months following the quake. “It was an opportunity for people to submit ideas about how they might reimagine their city,” she said. More than 10,000 people contributed over 100,000 ideas, which the council used to influence its draft central city plan. Share an Idea empowered the community, produced concrete recommendations for the future, and won international accolades.
In late 2011, the national government rejected that community-generated plan. Sidelining local politicians, the government came up with its own version, formulated behind closed doors in about 100 days. With much fanfare, the government announced a “Blueprint” for Christchurch that promised a brand-new city peppered with big-ticket items: a stadium, a library, a convention center, a giant indoor sports facility. The CEO of the government agency set up to oversee the rebuild said that “this new city will absolutely set an international benchmark for urban design, innovation, and livability.” The minister in charge, Gerry Brownlee, noted that “the plan and its implementation are being watched by the rest of the world.”…
A 2019 survey of 30,000 Christchurch residents found that just 29 percent of them thought that the city was better than it was before the quake. I lived in central Christchurch for about a decade, both before and after the quake, and I have to agree with the majority. Rebuilding this city was an opportunity to make something great; instead, 10 years on, we’re still talking about Christchurch’s potential. What lessons can other cities, rebuilding from disaster or redesigning in anticipation of change, learn from Christchurch?
Given how major cities operate today, this might not be a big surprise. Do city and civic leaders tend to listen to the people or do they go with decisions that enrich the interests of elites?
Sociologists have written about this. More broadly, the growth regimes/machines literature suggests that city decisions are made by a pro-growth coalition that can make money off development. The broader public has limited influence in big decisions.
More narrowly, studies like Crisis Cities show how communities react to large-scale crises. In the case of New York City after 9/11, much of the money and redevelopment effort went back into expensive property. In New Orleans, relatively little was done to help poorer residents and neighborhoods while more effort went into rebuilding the tourism industry.
This does not mean such change could not happen. But, it would be unusual. Without sustained effort from the larger community or unusual efforts from leaders to incorporate the community, redevelopment and cleanup will be aimed in a particular direction.